Worth It

Susie, writing about real things:

During remarks at the American Enterprise Institute
recently in Washington, Tedeschi said some servicemembers found the
changes in their lives so profound after combat, they expressed
gratitude for having gone through it — even if it cost them permanent
physical damage.

“They’d felt they’d changed as people in ways they otherwise
wouldn’t have,” Tedeschi says. “At the same time, as this trauma
separates them from other people, it also allows them to maybe see
themselves as more human than they ever were before, have a closer
connection with what it means to be a human being .”

You know, I don’t doubt this happens. After all, people have a
tendency to try to integrate their experiences for growth. But there’s
a fine line between that voluntary process and being cajoled by the
Army into pretending you don’t have problems.

I used to write about this stuff all the time when I was writing aboutGalactica, and 9/11, and all the horrible shit my friends and I put each other through once upon a time:

That which does not kill us takes away our best friends, our arms
and legs, our hair and eyes and lungs and hearts. That which does not
kill us pushes us onward. Come out of the chrysalis and you can tell
yourself you’re more beautiful, if that makes it better, if it soothes
your sting. I don’t care, particularly. Does the pain really make us
who we are, or is that what we tell ourselves in order to survive it?
Can we ever see the worth of the race at the finish line? Or do we need
another hundred thousand years?

Because otherwise, if it’s not Meaningful and Necessary, it’s burned
and blackened and stupid, empty, half a bridge to nowhere on a
deserted, bombed-out world. Otherwise it’s just what you dreamed of,
destitute and lost, the thing you bought at the cost of your miserable

I’m too involved with my own coping strategies these days to slam anyone else’s, except to say that it’s so, so, so easy to confuse “necessary” and “okay.” Most of us do it all day long anyway, because shitty things that happened to you have to be necessary in order that they no longer be shitty. For the story to make sense in retrospect, for it to fit inside where you need to keep it, you have to trim the hard edges off. Repeat something often enough, like your story about the hard times, and it starts to seem less real, and more like a movie you once saw.

But we only ever tell the story in retrospect. Poverty is a useful lesson, once you’re wealthy. Hunger may make the feast seem sweeter but there has to be a feast for you to taste first. Nobody says, while hurting, this pain is teaching me something. It’s only afterward, when the pain is gone. It has to be over, first, before it can become A Moment, and that’s where the idea that one should be grateful for one’s misfortune becomes the worst kind of condescension. Kids today don’t know how rough you had it. They only know how rough they have it, because that’s all any of us know.

So don’t tell me my pain will be useful someday. And don’t ask someone else to endure something you think will be good for him. The only lessons you’re responsible for are your own. You can’t tell me what was worth it. You have no idea. None of us do.


9 thoughts on “Worth It

  1. Yeah. What you said, double, with chopped nuts and a maraschino cherry on top.
    I think this also gets to the heart of why I find people who think that disabled people exist toteach them some kind of moral lesson so infuriating. We. Do. Not. Exist. To. Teach. You. How. To. Live. Or to make youfeel better about yourself, for that matter.
    Bad shit isn’tabout you.

  2. you can learn from anything. But the “I’ve learned so much from X” is also a psychological mechanism for coping with the long term.
    I’ll never forget from a Dear Ann-type column (it may have been Dear Ann / Abbey) that a lady in a wheelchair wrote in that she was minding her own business when a stranger came up and said along the lines of “I was getting down from my problems but seeing you and your problem I feel so much better”.
    The columnist suggested smiling and replying, “thank you. And after seeing you I feel so much better.” The recipient might not get it on the spot but the meaning would surely hit them at some point.

  3. Just finishing Krakauer’sWhere Men Win Glory a wonderful, horrible read about Pat Tillman’s decision to leave the NFL for the Army Rangers after 9/11, and all that BushCo did to use him and abuse his family after his friendly fire death in Afghanistan.
    Truly, it is to read and weep. Tillman was an atheist, liberal-minded football player who joined up with his younger brother Kevin out of patriotism after 9/11 despite not trusting Bush. Iraq sickened him, but Afghanistan still seemed like the right war, and he died there from pure army fuckup. Tillman’s potential was enormous and his death is so pointless as to make a mockery of everything we have been trying to do in Afghanistan over the last 8 years. Obama would do well to read Krakauer’s latest, and understand that none of this death and destruction is accomplishing anything.

  4. the sheeple doesn’t get enough ‘lessons’. history is full of heroism and fodder. we are all just brief blips on the ever change march of time.

  5. I think pain teaches you in the moment. Hunger teaches you when you’re hungry, not when it’s over and you finally feast. (Many will never feast.)
    I see a similar phenomenon, however. I am grateful that I’ve struggled because it has made me wiser. I like being wiser. I see people who’s idea of pain is that their favorite restaurant has closed, and wonder whether I was ever so shallow. (I was.) I wonder how shallow I seem to people who have endured far more than I. (I don’t wonder, really. I know – I seem as shallow to them as the restaurant lover seems to me.)
    But the price for this wisdom is high. (It’s suffering.) Could I choose to avoid the pain and forego the wisdom, would I? (Rumsfeldian ontology: there are known unknowns.) If I could reject the sufferings I’ve had, wouldn’t I have had other sufferings instead? (Marginal suffering.)
    Wisdom for me comes when I consider it no longer personal to me. It’s like breathing. It is a part of life. It doesn’t carry moral weight – I’m not better because I do/do not suffer. No more than I am superior for having two feet, or a masters degree. (I don’t. It’s a J.D.)
    Your pain isn’t penance you’re paying, for sins past. The universe doesn’t “owe” you redemption, or even release from pain (other than The Final Release, wink, wink). Your pain is part of you, the way your memory of your kindergarten teacher is part of you. Surely it’s nothing to be wished for or celebrated. Like life itself, it’s to be endured.

  6. You can come away from difficult events changed and whole, or changed and damaged. There is choice involved, strength to find, etc. Some make it through and others don’t and never recover. It isn’t that we need those events to find out who we are, it is that our strengths come through for us and we learn to appreciate them, ourselves, and those who stand beside us through difficult times.

  7. I personally can’t stand the sentiment, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t deal with.” That’s simply not true. People get handed stuff they cannot deal with every freakin’ day. Just read Hamlet! That guy could not deal.
    That being said, I have heard many people say being in combat makes them feel more alive. I can understand that, actually: it’s life stripped down to its barest essentials – you live, you die. I can see how that could be exhilarating. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than dealing with spreadsheets and worrying about your health insurance. But an equal if not greater number of people have their psyches utterly destroyed by the experience.

  8. I thought of Barbara Ehrenreich when I read this too. I was diagnosed with breast cancer this spring, and like Ehrenreich, I’m not really buying the whole “breast cancer as a positive experience” crap that I keep hearing from every freaking celebrity or breast cancer expert being interviewed on TV. It sucks. Really and truly.
    Will what I’m going through right now (I start radiation on Monday) ultimately make me a better person? Maybe or maybe not. But you can be damned sure that given a choice, I’d pick being the person I was 8 months ago over being a “better” person who has cancer.

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